Read some excerpts from Harriet Fisher's 1911 memoir about her trip around the world: "A Woman's World Tour in a Motor."
|Harriet White Fisher and her nephew had driven halfway around the world when their Locomobile roadster crawled up a rocky pass in the mountains of Japan and stopped inches from a 100-foot abyss.
Ahead was a flimsy footbridge made from bamboo, half as wide as their baggage-stuffed automobille and liable to give way under the weight of a single person.
For Fisher, a 43-year-old Trenton society woman who had determined to become the first woman ever to circle the world in a car, there was no question which way to go on that May day in 1910.
"I have made 'never turn back' a motto of my life," Fisher later wrote. "And although at times it seemed impossible to travel over these roads, we still kept on."
Turning back had never been Mrs. Fisher's way of doing things. Charging ahead on all cylinders was more her style.
This was a woman who had become a widow in her 30's, inherited a manufacturing plant from her wealthy husband and went on to become the only female factory owner in the United States.
Born Harriet White to a prosperous farm family in western Pennsylvania, she cherished the freedom of the outdoors. "I was always the one to bait the hooks, milk the cows, climb the trees and do 101 other things supposedly reserved for boys," she said.
At 32, she married Clark Fisher, owner of the Eagle Anvil Co. in Trenton, and moved with him to a handsome house at 125 E. Hanover St. For many women of the era, such a marriage would have secured their financial future and they would have retired into home and private life.
The new Mrs. Fisher didn't have that option. Three years into their marriage, the couple was riding a train through Middlesex County when it derailed, wrecked and severely injured Clark Fisher. In two months, he was dead.
Faced with the collapse of her husband's finances, Harriet Fisher showed amazing strength. She went to Eagle Anvil — located on Fair Street, now Route 29 in South Trenton — and announced to the assorted factory hands that she was their new boss.
"Some gave a quizzical look, some paid no attention to me at all but seemed to look through me as though I had been an atom of dust," Fisher later recalled.
Despite the less-than-enthusiastic welcome, the new company president quickly earned respect. She learned every step in the manufacturing of anvils and vises. She stood in the heat of the iron furnaces, barked orders and demanded obedience.
Stout and hard-headed, Fisher turned out to be an excellent businesswoman — increasing profits four times over and landing the government contract to turn out anvils used in building the Panama Canal.
"The woman ironmaster," newspapers called Fisher in wonderment, and they described an adventurous lady equally at home in factory dungarees or an evening gown mingling with royalty and millionaires.
The death of her husband had another far-reaching impact on Fisher. Ever since then, she didn't want to ride on a train, which she called "stuffy things."
Instead, she took up the new sport of automobiling. She bought herself a Locomobile, a top-of-the-line car that purred along on a 40-horsepower engine. She took week-long excursions to places like Ohio and Virginia, driving on dirt roads at the maximum speed permitted by law — usually 10 to 15 mph.
In spring 1909, Harriet Fisher began preparing for a really ambitious drive. With her nephew and chauffeur, Harold Brooks, she would ride around the world — crossing Europe, the Indian subcontinent, Japan and America before arriving back home in Trenton after a year of sightseeing.
To get across oceans, of course, she would have to have her car transported by ship — but the landward part of her journey it would still take more than 10,000 miles of driving.
The year before, the world's premiere motorists, all of them men, had taken part in a widely publicized New York-to-Paris race. Few of them got so far as California, much less Paris. And now, a woman would try the same daunting route, headed in the opposite direction.
This was an era when women weren't allowed to vote, yet here was a woman who could drive anywhere she wanted, even around the world, on her own.
It didn't seem to matter that Fisher herself didn't even support suffrage for her sex and once told the New York Times that "a woman's place is in the home." The publicity she generated only added to the idea that women were gaining freedom and could accomplish feats once done only by men.
As the editor of Motor magazine said at the time: "Every time a woman learns to drive, it's a revolution in the order of things."
Of course, Fisher had advantages few women of the time possessed. She was wealthy enough to bring along a chauffeur, a butler, a maid and literally a ton of supplies, including a tent that could spread to enormous dimensions. She even brought along her beloved bulldog, "Honk-Honk."
After driving from Trenton to New York on July 19, Fisher began her epic journey by loading the Locomobile into a giant crate and shipping it out with her to France. It included a special tank under the back seat allowing the driver to go 400 miles between refills.
She set forth from the Paris the following week, rolling past quaint farms, chugging up Alpine passes and spreading wonder and delight among Swiss who had rarely if ever seen a horseless carriage on their country roads.
"I would greet the people with "Guten tag" as we passed them, and the peasants would doff their hats, while the children threw bunches of wild flowers into the car," she wrote in her 1911 memoir, "A Woman's World Tour in a Motor."
On her leisurely schedule, it took her more than a month to get to Lake Como, Italy — where she then lolled from September until December before booking ship's passage from Marseilles, France, to Bombay.
Her plan was to drive across the Indian jungles and dusty plains, going places that no automobile had ever ventured with the help of scouts who placed gasoline tanks at depots along the 2,000-mile route.
The British authorities who ruled India warned her not to proceed if she valued her life. "Madam, you will never get 20 miles out of Bombay," said one officer.
But Fisher crossed India in four months. She adopted a pet monkey, hired local guides to stand watch over her tent with rifles and took a rest stop at a maharaja's palace. There, she tried on a sari, which she praised as far more comfortable than the hobble-skirts and shirtwaists of her era.
In Japan, she faced her most dramatic obstacle to finishing her journey at the mountain precipice, where she stared into the mists at the rickety bamboo footbridge.
How to cross? Fisher camped for a night to mull her situation over. She hired some peasant laborers to widen and shore up the bridge with wooden planks.
The, she boldly crossed the gorge and made her way to the port of Tokyo.
The final leg of her voyage, cross-country across America, was like a march of triumph. She was feted by automobile clubs in San Francisco, Chicago and New York. On her return to Trenton, on Aug. 16, 1910, all 300 of her employees turned out to give her a heroine's welcome.
Brooks, her driver, said he had to change a tire 20 times during the long voyage, but, amazingly, never replaced any other parts.
In years to come, Mrs. Fisher would never come close to duplicating her round-the-world feat. She devoted her attention to the plant, remarried — this time to an Argentinian naval officer named Silvano Andrew — and moved to an estate in Ewing.
Childless, she died at age 72 in 1939.
Harriet Fisher was never a mechanical whiz, she relied on a chauffeur to do most of her driving and she is largely forgotten today. Yet her bold example — plunging deep into the wildest, strangest corners of the earth — may have convinced untold numbers of women that car travel was safe. Men, too.
"The sheer spectacle of the whole thing was a big part of popularizing the automobile," said Virginia Scharff, a University of New Mexico professor and the author of a history of women drivers, "Taking the Wheel."
"Someone might have said, if a woman could drive around the world, why couldn't any idiot drive a car?"
|1910: Round the world she goes|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|